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Compass Newsletter Masthead
   Volume III, Issue 4
April 2007   

“Songs of the Black American Experience": Celebrating Black History Month

Joe Aronson, an author, artist, story teller and folk singer, has long had an affinity for folk music. In high school, he became interested in folk music when he heard a Burl Ives recording for the first time. His interest increased during his World War II military stint when he heard the soldiers singing folksongs. For Aronson, folk music enables him “to see and feel what the little people are feeling.” In 1957, with George Britton and Mike Marmel, he founded the Philadelphia Folksong Society.

Aronson shared this enthusiasm during “Songs of the Black American Experience” on Feb. 28, in the Falvey Memorial Library first floor lounge. His appearance was co-sponsored by the Library and Africana Studies. Darren Poley, programming and outreach librarian, introduced Aronson.

Accompanying his songs with his guitar, Aronson presented a history of African American life through the combination of music and commentary. He began the program with an Irish song which told of a young man’s migration to Bermuda where he joined a slave ship on its voyage to Africa. Aronson also performed a rarely-heard slave song and then traced the history of American blacks from service in the Continental Army through the Civil Rights era.

Aronson played and sang a number of spirituals, such as “Go Down Moses,” “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “How Shall I Send Thee,” explaining to the audience how these songs expressed not only the spiritual healing, feelings and faith of African Americans, but also contained coded messages about meetings, escape attempts and the Underground Railroad. He also discussed how African American music influenced popular white music, introduced terms such as “Jim Crow” to Americans and helped inspire minstrel shows in the nineteenth century. Aronson answered questions from the audience and the evening concluded with refreshments.

In addition to African American history and music, Aronson is interested in American Jewish history: its beginnings in 1654, when the first Jews came to America, the history of Soviet and Russian Jews and the Holocaust. He also teaches modern Jewish history through jokes and anecdotes and performs a non-musical program, “A Rosen by Any Other Name.”

Contributed by Alice Bampton; photograph by Laura Hutelmyer